Thursday, February 28, 2008

From One Director to Another, With Love

Ed Wood is Tim Burton's best film. There's no question about it. What a miraculous piece of filmmaking! I saw it once before, a long time ago, and I loved it then, but I felt like I HAD to see it again after subjecting myself to Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space. I obviously caught more of the jokes this time around, and I appreciate Ed Wood more than ever for recreating this crazy universe that "the worst director of all time" inhabited. I'm not sure I disagree with that label, either. He sure had more heart and passion than most of the mediocre hacks today, even though it didn't get him very far. Ed Wood was happy, and that's wonderful. I completely respect and admire him as a person.

Johnny Depp is terrifically cast as Ed Wood. Depp truly is a chameleon. He doesn't look exactly like Wood, but it's close enough, and his acting, spunk, and non-stop energy more than make up the difference. In a way, I think it's sort of a thankless role, because Martin Landau steals the film as Bela Lugosi. Depp really should be applauded, though. He makes what he's doing look so effortless that you sometimes forget he's doing anything at all. I don't think it's his best work, but he's still fantastic, and he does everything he's required to do. He brings nuance to the role, although it's not always easy to discern (there were times when he got on my nerves, I admit), but I think the thing about Ed Wood is - he didn't have a whole lot of nuance. He loved wearing women's clothes, making movies, and life in general. He wasn't a complicated guy.

Depp captures him just right, even though it's not the showiest performance, and he's asked to carry a lot of the movie, which he does admirably. Sarah Jessica Parker proves just what a great actress she is as his girlfriend, Dolores. She's radiant. It takes really great acting to act badly, and when she's in his movies (the faux-movies recreated in Ed Wood), she's abominable. There's a great exchange between Dolores and Loretta (Martin Landau's daughter Juliet, of cult Buffy fame) playing a scene from one of Wood's movies. It's so awkward and stiff, and the way they deliver the lines, especially Parker's last seemingly throwaway ones ("Oh, I get it. See you tomorrow."), are priceless. It's so mechanical and awful and sounds exactly like how people talk in Wood's real movies. The cast really did their research.

Even some of the acting (in "real life," not just in the films) seems like it's deliberately supposed to be bad like in one of Wood's masterpieces, if that makes sense. The actors are so mannered and often robotic in their movements, facial expressions, and speech that it has to be intentional. The whole film seems like it's done in the spirit of a Wood movie. Lisa Marie (uncanny!) as Vampira, Jeffrey Jones as Criswell, Patricia Arquette as Kathy, George "The Animal" Steele (hilarious!), and Bill Murray (brilliant!) as...wait for it...Bunny Breckinridge ("What about glitter? When I was a headliner in Paris, audiences always liked it when I sparkled.") are the rest of the astounding actors who comprise the rest of Wood's motley crew (At one point, Dolores assesses: "Well, I see the usual cast of fags, losers, and drug addicts are here."). I feel like I'm IN an Ed Wood movie now with all those exclamation points. He's infectious, I guess. Like the bubonic plague. But a happy bubonic plague.

Martin Landau's performance as Bela Lugosi is one of the best performances I've ever seen on film, and one of my personal favorites. First of all, the make-up department deserves a standing ovation for making him look exactly like Lugosi. And then Landau soars from there. The speech and the mannerisms are perfect. He's almost more Lugosi than Lugosi was. It's way more than just a good impersonation, even though I bet no one has done Lugosi better. Landau brings such depth and humanity to Lugosi, who at this point in his life was totally obscure and forgotten ("But now - no one gives two fucks for Bela!"), lonely, almost broke, desperately clinging to Dracula, and subsisting on heroin. It seems like Lugosi was never able to shake Dracula. He lived his life as Dracula, which is really sad. His relationship with Ed Wood is so touching, because you see just how much Bela needs a friend. Landau, when he does Bela's scenes (especially in Glen or Glenda), is spot-on, but he adds the emotion and subtlety that Lugosi probably couldn't because of his state of mind. Landau's performance is truly a force of nature. He's heartbreaking and hilarious, and his Bela is the heart of the film, way more than Ed Wood. I'm so glad Landau won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He totally deserved it. What a genius.

Ed Wood is an extraordinary aesthetic achievement. Under Tim Burton's confident, inspired direction, the film just shines. The black and white cinematography by Stefan Czapsky is so crisp and beautiful that it dazzles the eyes. It's phenomenal. Howard Shore's score is amazing, Colleen Atwood's costumes are remarkable (she recreates the movies and the period), Chris Lebenzon's editing is seamless when the mood requires and loud when it needs to be, the production design by Tom Duffield (along with Okowita's art direction and Cricket Rowland's set decoration) completely capture Ed Wood's world, particularly the sets of the movies, and the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski is flawless. Burton's vision is truly one of a kind. What's really mind-blowing is how Burton shoots the film almost in the style of a Wood movie (of course, Wood never had this kind of cinematography). The music swells really ridiculously during dramatic moments to make it extra cheesy, there are lots of silly superimpositions, and often the editing consists of lame wipes and other hackneyed (all on purpose) transitions. It's really, really cool. No one else could have made this movie. Burton's commitment and passion to the project is inspiring.

I should wrap this up before I run out of adjectives. It's obvious that Tim Burton has deep respect and affection for Ed Wood. He doesn't ridicule him. Instead, he celebrates his spirit, and that's a beautiful thing. It doesn't make Ed Wood any more talented (he was an atrocious filmmaker), but it definitely gives me more appreciation for everything that Ed Wood went through. People kept knocking him down, and he refused to stay there. He was always optimistic. He made compromises and did whatever he had to do to make his movies. Ed Wood just loved movies, and isn't that what matters? He was like a way less-talented Michel Gondry, just a big kid playing around and loving every single moment.

There's also an exceptional cameo by Vincent D'Onofrio as Orson Welles, Ed Wood's idol. His Welles is so accurate and amazing that it's unreal. They have this exchange when they meet:

Ed Wood: Do you know that I've even had producers re-cut my movies?
Orson Welles: I hate when that happens.
Ed Wood: And they always want to cast their buddies. It doesn't even matter if they're right for the part.
Orson Welles: Tell me about it. I'm supposed to do a thriller for Universal. They want Charlton Heston as a Mexican.

Okay, I really just included that part because I love the whole "Charlton Heston as a Mexican" thing. He's talking about Touch of Evil, and it's just hilarious, because Heston is AWFUL in it. He's the least convincing Mexican ever. Picture Moses as a Mexican. Doesn't work, right?

But I did have a reason for bringing up Orson Welles in Ed Wood. He tells Ed, "Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else's dreams?" That really sums up his life, work, and this film honoring his memory beautifully. Ed Wood was doing what he loved. We should all be so lucky.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

1 comment:

Bill Treadway said...

My favorite Burton film and third on my 10 Best list for 1994.

The scene when Bill Murray shouts out "Goodbye, penis!" at the wrestling match was worth the price of admission.

It's scary how much George Steele looked like Tor Johnson. Did you ever see Beast of Yucca Flats, which Johnson starred? Talk about painful!